WoSblog is internationally renowned for its psychiatric expertise, so I wasn't surprised yesterday when a viewer of the WoS Forum asked me, quite out of the blue, to assess their mental stability.
"I want to know if I'm going barmy", wrote the clearly-distressed reader, whose cause for doubting his very sanity was – of all things – a review of an incredibly expensive office chair.
The viewer's issue was that they felt the review read more like an advertisement, and from the opening lines alone it was difficult to disagree with their assertion. I'll quote the first three paragraphs in full here, because strange things have been happening to the article since WoSblog started to investigate it, and the way things are going they might not be there by the time you come to read this feature:
"Is a chair's purpose merely to furnish a place for us to sit? There are countless directions to discuss this subjective matter, but suffice it to say that a chair's purpose goes beyond a solid foundation for resting our weight. In an ideal chair, the design would be suitable for hours of comfortable sitting. The chair would accommodate healthy posture, and relieve stress from load-bearing joints. Ideally, this chair would be attractive and feature a look as competent as its ability. There is such a chair.
Herman Miller is a company that engineers function and architects fashion. They've dominated the industry with decades of elite furniture, and influenced our perception of what a chair should be. Herman Miller's Aeron chair, one of the few commercial products added into the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, was introduced in 1994 and has set the bar immeasurably high for every chair that's come thereafter. It seems fitting then, that Herman Miller, the name behind the world's most admired chair, has returned to improve upon their prestige.
Welcome the Herman Miller Embody chair. Designed specifically for people who work for hours at their computer, Embody is the first work chair that benefits both mind and body. More than just a solution towards minimizing the negative effects of sitting, Herman Miller's Embody chair was also designed to deliver positive effects on the body. In this article Benchmark Reviews takes you on a tour of the Herman Miller Embody ergonomic office chair, and demonstrates how much better sitting all day can feel. "
Originally, the "review" then followed this up with a paragraph of puff about what a super company Herman Miller was. You can see it in the picture below, retrieved from Google Cache (which is the source of all the coloured highlighting, a result of finding the cached page by searching for the text).
Note that the paragraph is presented in exactly the same text formatting as the rest of the review. This will become more interesting shortly.
The entire second page of the "review" read even more like it was lifted straight out of a press release, complete with bullet-point lists of features described in that weird, stilted way that nobody but PR people ever uses – "Creates harmony between people and computers"; "Enables and promotes healthful movement"; "Lets blood and oxygen flow more freely, enhancing ability to stay focused".
There's a very good reason for that, namely that it WAS lifted straight out of a press release. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
It transpired that the WoS Forum user (who we must, through gritted teeth, refer to as "VinylPusher") had raised his concerns about the "review" in the comments section, and had his posts deleted. In an email to VinylPusher explaining this censorship, the Executive Editor of Benchmark Reviews – one Olin Coles – had given him the following explanation:
"Considering how many people visit our website, I’d like to ensure that my article has not led others into believing it’s an advertisement. The Embody chair was paid for out of my own pocket, with absolutely no sample/product coordination with the merchant. If you would please supply examples of how you perceive my eight-page article as an advertisement, it would be helpful."
The WoS Forum, meanwhile – and particularly those members of it who are professional writers – was busy wholeheartedly agreeing with VinylPusher's assessment of the "review". For page after page, it spews out PR-speak that resembles a critical review about as much as Chris Moyles resembles Megan Fox. Page 4, for example, kicks off with the following assertion:
"Designed by Bill Stumpf (who pioneered the Aeron Chair) and Jeff Weber, the Herman Miller Embody chair goes a step beyond being merely "heath-neutral". Over time, it can actually improve the health of the person sitting in it. Scientific studies have shown that Embody users can experience better circulation, reduced resting heart rates, and less tissue damage around the sitting muscles."
Oddly, the "scientific studies" in question are neither named nor linked from the piece, leaving the reader none the wiser as to their methodology, impartiality or validity. The text continues "Through years of research and development, Bill Stumpf and Jeff Weber incorporated health-beneficial features such as the Pixelated Support System – a dynamic mesh of adjoining seat materials that has been proven to increase circulation and reduce strain on cell tissue", but similarly neglects to identify the source of this "proof".
It being almost impossible to read the review without arriving at the same conclusion as our poor troubled viewer had, I posted a couple of comments myself, politely requesting that in the interests of propriety, Benchmark Reviews really ought to identify the member of Herman Miller's PR department who had clearly provided most of the text. These comments too were swiftly deleted. In the intervening time, however, another WoS Forums user, Ian Osborne, had located the smoking gun.
This Google search for one of the more glaringly obvious paragraphs of PR-speak turned up the source of the text – Herman Miller's own brochure for the chair. (Which I've mirrored here, as their website is painfully slow.) One of my deleted comments was a link to the Google search, which was where things started to get really fun.
Having had my original comments deleted, I posted another one remarking very briefly on their deletion, using a disposable email account since what normally happens in these situations is that your original username and/or address get blocked. The post was unsurprisingly also deleted, but this time the disposable address got an emailed reply, from "Benchmark Reviews Administrator".
I was rather hurt by the attack on my reading skills, especially as I was also pretty sure that there had been no such identification of the sources of the text, nor any way of distinguishing it from the rest of the copy. In fact, I knew there hadn't, because I'd looked for it the first time.
So I went to look at the review again to check, and was surprised to find that it was no longer accessible. Or at least, no longer accessible to me. No matter which browser I tried the link in, I got an error message.
Asking some friends to confirm the problem, I discovered that they had no difficulties at all, which was odd. I then hooked up a laptop to a mobile broadband dongle and got into the site first time, while my normal connection still came up blank. The only reasonable conclusion was that my IP address had been blocked. It's now the following day, and I still can't get into any part of the Benchmark Reviews site with my normal PC, while everyone else I know can see it fine.
So I decided to follow Ian Osborne's lead, and searched for some of the text via Google Cache. It first produced the copy of page 1 that's pictured near the top of this feature, with the "About Herman Miller, Inc" paragraph in its original formatting. Google Cache described that version as "the page as it appeared on 14 Jul 2010 08:25:39 GMT".
(The page now italicizes that paragraph, and appends the line "Company Summary Provided by Herman Miller.")
The results for page 2 were more interesting. Google Cache's header, however, noted that this was a version of the page created at 02:43:10 GMT on July 18, four days later than the page 1 cache. This time, the opening two paragraphs were italicized, but still lacked the "Source: Herman Miller" tag described in such hurt and angry tones by Olin Coles in his email. There was no other explanation for the italics, and no quote marks, which are the traditional way of depicting a quote.
(The version of the page that's current at the time of writing has a slightly different prefix to the one claimed by Mr Coles, and does feature the "Source: Herman Miller" line, but the curious thing is the placing of it. It appears directly after the two paragraphs of text but before the bullet-point puff list about "creating harmony between people and computers" etc – which was previously headed "Herman Miller Features" – so we must assume that Mr Coles wrote those himself.)
It seemed that the only way to get to the bottom of this perplexing mystery was to go straight to the horse's mouth. So I've dropped Benchmark Reviews a line, starting from the premise that if they didn't like "anonymous internet trolls" I should introduce myself properly.
Dear Mr Coles,
Hello. I'm a professional freelance journalist of 20 years' standing (an archive of my work can be found at worldofstuart.co.uk), and a number of people have recently drawn my attention to your review of the Herman Miller Embody chair. I'm investigating some allegations about the review, and wondered if you could clear a couple of things up for me.
I notice that the article has in the last 24 hours been amended to identify some sections as being written by Herman Miller, which were previously not identified as such. Interestingly, you appear to be claiming that the current version is the original, something which is easily disproven via Google Cache.
Are these the only sections of the article not written by you personally? Can you confirm, for example, that the following passage is your own work?
"Designed by Bill Stumpf (who pioneered the Aeron Chair) and Jeff Weber, the Herman Miller Embody chair goes a step beyond being merely "heath-neutral" [sic]. Over time, it can actually improve the health of the person sitting in it. Scientific studies have shown that Embody users can experience better circulation, reduced resting heart rates, and less tissue damage around the sitting muscles. Embody promotes natural alignment in the spine, relieving stress across the entire back no matter how you twist and turn."
If so, can you provide links to these "scientific studies", since presumably you wouldn't have cited them if you didn't read them yourself? Clearly, in the interests of fairness I'd like to have your side of the story before writing my piece. Should I not hear from you, obviously I'll have to proceed on the basis of the evidence available.
Rev. S. Campbell
If I hear anything, I'll be sure to keep you updated. But in the meantime, let's recap the facts that we know for sure:
1. The original "review" did NOT acknowledge that the paragraphs on pages 1 and 2 were provided directly by Herman Miller.
2. The review has been hastily edited to insert some acknowledgements to that effect, but Benchmark Reviews is claiming that they were always there, something which is provably untrue.
3. Anyone voicing doubts about the integrity of the review has – despite the implicit admission that the original version was misleading and didn't acknowledge PR content – had their comments deleted, and received a huffy or openly abusive email.
4. My IP address, seemingly alone in the world, is no longer able to view the Benchmark Reviews website.
5. Olin Coles really, really loves his $1200 chair, which he definitely paid for himself. He even goes so far as to say that "The Embody chair does not come with arm supports by default, which is a good thing, because most times they'll be unnecessary or unwanted."
The arm supports, instead, are a $100 optional extra. (Other extras include nicer cloth for an extra $200, a shiny silver-coloured base for a further $200, and "premium translucent casters" for another $50, taking the price of the fully-kitted chair comfortably over £1000. And that'd be before VAT.)
6. None of the following quotes are identified in the article as being provided by Herman Miller, even after its editing, so they must have been penned by a professional, "fully independent" reviewer doing his best to write a balanced and critical appraisal of an eye-wateringly expensive piece of top-end office furniture in order to give his readers useful purchasing guidance:
"Herman Miller Embody chair cloth textiles utilize spacer-and-knit constructions used in athletic footwear and geo-textiles. These materials are meant to enhance Embody, not simply cover up the chair. Contemporary colors paired with either of two frame colors and three base colors help to simplify choice* and appeal to universal tastes." [Hmm.]
"The Herman Miller Embody chair's Backfit adjustment and seat conform to your unique shape and distribute weight evenly. Embody's shape mimics the spine, providing subtle support along the entire back that shifts with your movements. The Backfit creates a dynamic surface that reacts to your movements every time you shift"
"To promote the flow of heat away from the body that can build up under the legs and back over time, Herman Miller developed the Pixelated Support system. This 4-layer mesh is filled with negative space** which permits a much greater amount of air flow than traditional fabric and frame chairs. Every square inch reacts under your movements. When you shift, your seat shifts. The extremely responsive nature of the Pixelated Support material means Embody users can sit for hours without experiencing uncomfortable heat-buildup."
"By fitting the body form and reducing seated pressure, Embody increases blood circulation and improves the flow of oxygen to help decreases heart rate." ***
"If there was one Herman Miller piece that goes perfectly with Embody, it's the Envelop desk. Equipped with adjustable features such as a tapered extending desktop with tilt support, the Envelope could be considered one half of the ideal Embody set." ****
7. When asked in November 2008 how he selected which products to review, Olin Coles responded by saying this, on the record:
"I used to take anything that manufacturers would offer, back when BmR was starving for donated products. These days, we work more closely with proven manufacturers to help launch their upcoming products".
My emphasis, there. Make your own minds up, chums.
(Special thanks to alert WoSblog associate John X – not pictured – for splendid additional sourcing.)
* In terms of those three options alone – that is, discounting the numerous caster types and optional armrests etc – there are a mere 168 combinations to choose from. Thank goodness they simplified it!
** I have no idea what "negative space" in a chair is. Sorry.
*** The source of these medical claims, like the others in the review, is not identified. I suspect it's Herman Miller Laboratories.
**** Buy more Herman Miller products! In the eight-page review, the words "Herman Miller" appear 71 times, or once every 64 words. The word "Embody" makes 104 appearances, or one every 44 words. For reference, this single paragraph you're reading now is 44 words long.
UPDATES TO THIS AWESOME SAGA:
Update 1 – Olin Coles publishes my home address and phone number on the internet.
Update 2 – the original source of most of the text is revealed to be a furniture retailer.
Update 3 – suddenly, all the ads in the "review" are replaced by ads for said retailer. Numerous hasty edits are also made to the text as disclaimers and qualifiers, to make it appear less like sales blurb.
Update 4 – Olin Coles files numerous DMCA reports to try to suppress the story, succeeding in having WoSblog suspended for most of a day by its idiot hosts.
Update 5 – Olin Coles admits to taking the material from Smart Furniture – revealing most of his previous statements to have been lies – but claims to have had permission.